Why We Should Treat PTSD Anxiety Differently Than General Anxiety Disorder
To address treatment, it is imperative that we know the difference between worrying, GAD, and anxiety as a side effect of PTSD. Worrying is something we all do, from taking a test to having to undergo surgery. Worry is part of life.
The difference, according to Johns Hopkins Health Alert, is the amount of time spent worrying. Those with an anxiety disorder are more likely to spend 4+ hours of their day worrying, whereas regular worrying lasts about an hour. Those with an anxiety disorder are also more likely to have accompanying physical symptoms, such as panic attacks, racing heartbeat, and upset stomach.
GAD is a disorder in and of itself, with its own set of symptoms and treatments. There are also subcategories, one of which is PTSD (yes it is considered an anxiety disorder). However, in my experience, anxiety associated with PTSD is a side effect. PTSD is the disorder, side effects include anxiety and depression, among others. GAD presents gradually, usually by adolescence, is more common in females, and runs in families. There is no known cure. PTSD is the direct result of a traumatizing event/series of events, occurring at any age, and can be cured.
Fear caused by GAD, whether a realistic scenario or not, is perceived as very real to the individual. The fear is a “what if” type of scenario; dread or even terror at the thought of something possibly happening, or of a future event. Fear caused by PTSD is also perceived as realistic by the individual, but it’s based on an event or recurrence of events that have already happened. It is real and it is possible because it has already happened. The same fight or flight response is triggered, however the cause is completely different.
The lines do get blurred, as untreated PTSD can escalate into GAD, major depressive disorder, substance abuse, etc. I feel this happens more than we are aware since an estimated 30% of those with anxiety disorders do not seek treatment, according to Elements Behavioral Health. In these cases, traditional therapies should be explored.
Also important to note is that PTSD doesn’t just affect war veterans. It is a response to any traumatic event or series of events that cause us to fear for our lives or well-being. It can be something that happened directly to you, or something you witnessed. Obviously how we respond to trauma is different for everyone. I could be in a car accident and feel more inconvenienced than anything, whereas my friend could be traumatized and not want to ever get back into a car. My cousin could have experienced the same childhood abuse as I did, but was able to move past it more easily than I. Trauma is subjective, as is each person’s reaction to it. Many people feel, “Well it’s not like I was in a war or something, this is just an overly dramatic reaction to ____,” therefore minimizing their own struggle and depriving themselves of treatment. Your brain is telling you it’s a big deal to YOU, it’s not beneficial to try to compare your experience with someone else’s.
It is still being studied, but the general consensus is that GAD is a combination of genetic and environmental factors/learned behaviors. PTSD is not genetic, but solely caused by a traumatic event, or series of events. Utilizing treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy is extremely effective in treating PTSD, as it helps individuals to reshape their thinking and responses in a safe environment. This treatment is also helpful to those with GAD, however it is more for management of symptoms than a cure. Often, those with PTSD are treated the same as those with GAD; they are given medication and offered psychotherapy (talk therapy). Getting to the root cause of the PTSD, and facing it, is paramount to recovery. With GAD, there is no definable cause, nor are the triggers always clear. Those with PTSD can easily connect their triggers to the trauma and can work through them as they learn healthier ways to respond.
The fear and the biological responses to the fear are the same, however the anxiety from PTSD has a clear trigger. The fear is based on something that already happened. It can show as anxiety symptoms when faced with a similar situation, or flashbacks to the event, triggered by a song or a certain smell that reminds the brain of that time. There can also be nightmares where the event plays over and over as our subconscious tries to deal with it. Traditional therapies for GAD can be helpful, especially in severe cases and previously untreated individuals, but for those with PTSD, our best chance to move past it is to work through the trauma that caused it, in a safe environment.
If you feel you may have GAD or PTSD, or would just like to talk about an event that still bothers you, we at U!Shine can direct you to an English-speaking specialist here in Vienna. It is important to find a therapist that specializes in PTSD to receive the most effective treatments. You can also take advantage of our free coffee meetups where we discuss resources for all aspects of mental health.
Resources & References:
Tips on quieting the noisy, anxious mind: https://www.elementsbehavioralhealth.com/mental-health/anxiety-quieting-a-noisy-troubled-mind/
Common treatment options for PTSD: https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/what-are-treatments-for-posttraumatic-stress-disorder#1
About the Author
Stacey Jobstmann is the Facebook manager and blog editor of U!Shine Vienna. She moved to Lower Austria from California in 2015 to marry the love of her life. She enjoys reading, playing with her dogs, running, and exploring with her family. She treated her PTSD from childhood traumas with a variety of methods, and hopes to support others in their journey. The most helpful to her was EFT (emotional freedom technique), Jung's shadow work, following a morning routine (The Miracle Morning), and following the principles of the Law of Attraction. Her favorite pages/people to follow are Karen Salmansohn, Brene Brown, and Bruce H. Lipton, PhD.